Judge warned in 2021 of gay bar attacker’s shootout plans
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — A judge dismissed the 2021 kidnapping case against the Colorado gay nightclub shooter even though she had previously raised concerns about the defendant stockpiling weapons and explosives and planning a shootout, court transcripts obtained Friday by The Associated Press reveal.
Relatives, including the grandparents who claimed to have been kidnapped, had also told Judge Robin Chittum in August last year about Anderson Aldrich’s struggles with mental illness during a hearing at which the judge said Aldrich needed treatment or “it’s going to be so bad,” according to the documents.
Yet no mention was made during a hearing this July of the suspect’s violent behavior or the status of any mental health treatment.
And Chittum, who had received a letter late last year from relatives of Aldrich’s grandparents warning the suspect was certain to commit murder if freed, granted a defense attorney’s motion to dismiss the case as a trial deadline loomed and the grandparents had stopped cooperating.
The revelation that Chittum regarded the defendant as a potentially serious threat adds to the advance warnings authorities are known to have had about Aldrich’s increasingly violent behavior and it raises more questions about whether the recent mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs could have been prevented.
Five people were killed and 17 wounded in the Nov. 19 attack. Aldrich was charged last week with 305 criminal counts, including hate crimes and murder. Aldrich’s public defender has declined to talk about the case, and investigators have not released a motive.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said transcripts of court hearings in the case confirmed his view that “more could have been done to prevent the violence.”
Dershowitz acknowledged that he didn’t know every detail in front of Chittum during the hearings but said that while judges are typically supposed to be umpires, “judges are usually more aggressive in cases like this, when the handwriting is on the wall.”
In many cases, Dershowitz said, prosecutors can overreach to get a conviction, but “here, you have the legal system failing.”
Chittum’s comments in Aldrich’s kidnapping case had previously been under a court seal that was lifted last week at the request of prosecutors and news organizations including the AP. Chittum’s assistant, Chad Dees, said Friday that the judge declined to comment.
“You clearly have been planning for something else,” Chittum told Aldrich during the August 2021 hearing, after the defendant testified about an affinity for shooting firearms and a history of mental health problems.
“It didn’t have to do with your grandma and grandpa. It was saving all these firearms and trying to make this bomb, and making statements about other people being involved in some sort of shootout and a huge thing. And then that’s kind of what it turned into,” the judge said.
Aldrich — whose defense lawyers say is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns — spoke to Chittum in court that day about repeated abuse as a young child by their father and longtime struggles with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, the transcript shows.
(The vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent, studies show, and experts say most people who are violent do not have mental illnesses. Additionally, nonbinary people and advocates warn against making assumptions about people with nontraditional gender identities.)
Aldrich, who was largely raised by their grandparents, wanted to join the military as a teenager but decided it wasn’t going to happen, the transcripts show. The suspect described refusing to take medications and then “getting on track” after moving to Colorado, obtaining a medical marijuana license and starting college, according to the transcripts.
“I also went to the (shooting range) as often as I could since the age of 16,” Aldrich testified, the transcripts show. “My mom and I would go ... sometimes multiple times a week and have fun shooting. This is a major pastime for me. Going to school, working and then relaxing at the shooting range.”
Aldrich said they went to Dragonman’s shooting range east of Colorado Springs, where the dirt driveway was lined by mannequins that looked bloodied Friday. Nearby were rusted vehicles, some peppered in bullet holes. Two people who appeared to work at the range said they did not know Aldrich and declined further comment.
Shooting at the range “was highly therapeutic for me, and was a great way to spend spare time,” Aldrich told Chittum.
When Aldrich’s grandparents made plans to move to Florida, the suspect became despondent. Leading up to the 2021 confrontation with authorities, Aldrich started drinking liquor regularly and smoking heroin, dropped out of school and quit working, the transcript shows.
The charges in that case against Aldrich — who had stockpiled explosives and allegedly spoke of plans to become the “next mass killer” before engaging in an armed standoff with SWAT teams — were thrown out during a four-minute hearing this past July at which the prosecution didn’t even argue to keep the case active.
The prosecution was the responsibility solely of the district attorney, said Ian Farrell, associate professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, noting that judges like Chittum have no power to force charges.
“Since a deadline for proceeding with (Aldrich’s) trial was coming up and the prosecution clearly was not ready to proceed ... the trial judge had no choice but to dismiss the case,” Farrell said.
Judges can appoint special prosecutors in extreme situations, such as when a decision not to prosecute is done in bad faith, Farrell said. But the 2021 case did not appear to rise to that bar, he said, because witnesses in the case were unavailable.
Howard Black, spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, has said he cannot share information about the kidnapping case because it’s part of the current investigation. El Paso County District Attorney Michael Allen has said his office did everything it could to prosecute the case, including trying to subpoena Aldrich’s mother, but has repeatedly declined to elaborate.
During the 2021 standoff, Aldrich allegedly told the frightened grandparents about firearms and bomb-making material in the basement of the home they all shared. Aldrich vowed not to let the grandparents interfere with plans to “go out in a blaze.”
Aldrich livestreamed on Facebook a subsequent confrontation with SWAT teams at the house of their mother, Laura Voepel, where the defendant eventually surrendered, was arrested and had weapons, ammunition and more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of explosive materials seized.
The FBI had received a tip on Aldrich a day before the threat but closed out the case just weeks later with no federal charges filed.
By August 2021, when Aldrich bonded out of jail, the grandparents were describing the suspect as a “sweet young” person, according to the transcripts. At two subsequent hearings that fall, defense attorneys described how Aldrich was attending therapy and was on medications, the transcripts show.
In an October 2021 courtroom exchange, Chittum told Aldrich to “hang in there with the meds.”
“It’s an adjustment period for sure,” Aldrich replied, to which the judge replied, “Yeah it will settle, don’t worry. Good luck.”
The case had been headed toward a plea agreement early this year but fell apart after family members stopped cooperating and prosecutors failed to successfully serve a subpoena to testify to Aldrich’s 69-year-old grandmother Pamela Pullen, who was bedridden in Florida.
There is scant discussion in the transcripts of efforts by prosecutors to subpoena other potential witnesses — including Aldrich’s mother, grandfather and a fourth person who is listed in court documents but not identified.
Although authorities missed some warning signs about Aldrich’s capability for violence, the opposite happened across the country in Minnesota this week, where a man who said he idolized Aldrich was arrested after trying to buy grenades from an FBI informant and building an arsenal of automatic weapons to use against police, according to charges.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.